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ANAHEIM, CA — The Dallas Eakins Era in Anaheim has gotten through its first growing pain.
The pain arrived in the form of a sprained MCL for Josh Manson on October 24th against the Dallas Stars. Anaheim would only manage four wins in its following 10 games, denting the club’s playoff hopes. To lose is one thing, but the Ducks’ overall game dipped into dark waters during that stretch. With Manson now healthy and back in the lineup, there’s optimism that Eakins’ squad can find its game again.
Until Manson’s MCL injury, Anaheim’s newly-minted head coach had his club playing solid, if unspectacular hockey, to the tune of a 52.23 expected goals-for percentage at five-on-five. The 28-year-old defenseman’s presence allowed for Eakins to deploy his blueline in a very specific way. Manson, alongside Hampus Lindholm on the first pairing, ate up all the tough assignments, making way for the up-tempo tandem of Cam Fowler and Brendan Guhle to play a more offensive style against weaker competition. The synthesis of those two pairings sheltered Anaheim’s third pairing of Jacob Larsson and Korbinian Holzer. Lindholm and Manson did not necessarily dominate in their role, but the ripple effect on the other two pairings was undeniable. Guhle, in particular, looked confident joining the rush and provide that added layer of attack that so many had envisioned under an Eakins-led team. Those visions soon vanished with the fall of a single domino.
Anaheim would see the delicate balance of its blueline construction buckle alongside Manson that fateful night in Dallas. Ducks’ General Manager Bob Murray sought immediate support, plucking physical defenseman Erik Gudbranson out of Pittsburgh by way of trade just a few days later.
Yet, as Gudbranson tried to find his bearings on a new club, Anaheim would suffer another setback in the form of an injury to Lindholm. Any possible solution for Manson’s absence went out the window, as Eakins had to contend with a war on two fronts. Lindholm would eventually return, but the damage was done. The Ducks saw their expected goals-for percentage go from well over 50 percent at the time of Manson’s injury, all the way down to 45 percent by mid-November. Eakins tried just about everything. Larsson got time next to Lindholm on the first pairing, Michael Del Zotto would see big minutes, even Holzer was thrust into critical penalty killing minutes. Nothing seemed to really stick, perhaps hinting at an overall lack of depth. Both Guhle and Larsson badly struggled in Manson’s absence; both have since been sent down to the minors. Eakins tried to minimize their work-loads as best as he could by alternating them on the third pairing, but even that didn’t work.
The passage of time tends to provide solutions. For Eakins, the return of Lindholm brought back a semblance of stability. Fowler and Gudbranson formed a workable second pairing, while Josh Mahura arose as Anaheim’s most polished defensive prospect. Del Zotto, the well-traveled veteran, did well in spot minutes.
Where the Ducks once struggled to control the pace of play, they now have a new-found level of credibility. Although the scoreboard results haven’t been there, strong road performances against the likes of Washington and Winnipeg indicate that the club has left its darkest struggles behind. From a low point of 42.8 percent, Anaheim has clawed its way up to a rolling average of 49.18 percent from an expected goals-for perspective. That’s a considerable spike, showing how the Ducks have both managed to tighten up their own defensive zone work while also transitioning that into greater offensive chances.
Anaheim’s most recent loss against Los Angeles both demonstrated just how far the club has come, and also how much further it has to go. Just as they did against Minnesota earlier in the week, Eakins’ men limited their opposition’s offensive opportunities. Sure, the Kings got their licks in, but gone were the complete defensive breakdowns that had so often marked their long stretch of losses.
The challenge now turns to the offensive zone, where the coaching staff is searching for line combinations to spark its forwards. Jonathan Quick did indeed stand on his head for Los Angeles, turning aside 36 of 37 shots, but the Ducks had plenty of golden opportunities that they simply failed to capitalize on.
Ideally, Eakins would like his team to play a faster attacking style, something that’s a lot harder to accomplish without a stable blueline. With the back end now sorted out, the focus now turns to making sure there won’t be too many more games like the one that happened on Thursday night.